Mother nudged me gently out of a sound sleep. “Wake up,” she whispered, “it’s almost time.” The time was about 4.a.m. in South Texas, still quiet and dark, save for the blue-gray flicker of light from our brand new television set in the next room. I grabbed my pillow and made my groggy way to the living room sofa. My Mother was already situated in her favorite chair with a cup of coffee. “Look, look,” she said as she pointed to the gravelly screen. “That’s England and there she is!”
I was five years old and only vaguely aware of what all the excitement was about, though certain this must be a big event since our TV set was actually showing something other than a big black circle during the night. Mother had explained to me the day before that we were going to be able to watch the coronation of a queen of a great country as it was happening, and she had even shown me just where England was on our big world globe. “This is historic,” she said, “something you will remember for the rest of your life.” It was June 2, 1953, and I have, indeed, remembered it many times over to this very day.
As young and sleepy as I was that early morning, I can still see that small figure with a long train walking down the aisle in that cavernous nave among all those people (images not very clear to me then, but since reinforced by recordings in living color). With the rich music and elaborate pageantry under the grand spires of Westminster Abbey, I learned what “pomp and circumstance” meant from a nation of experts. And then, after almost three hours, I was proud of myself for having stayed awake, seen it all, and witnessed the crowing of the young Queen Elizabeth II. Who knew then that she was destined to become the longest reigning monarch in British history.
I got a Queen Elizabeth II Madam Alexander doll for Christmas that year. She was dressed in full coronation splendor with a gown of sparkling golden white, a blue silk sash across her bodice, a purple train edged in faux ermine flowing behind her, and a tiny replica of the State Diadem crown of diamonds on her head. I never really played with her, but she was a prized possession and became the first member of my future doll collection. (That Queen Elizabeth doll sold at auction in 2019 for $3,800, by the way, virtually guaranteed to be more valuable if you have one now.)
Queen Elizabeth’s coronation became the foundation of more than a doll collection in my life; rather it marked the beginning of my awareness of geography, international events, and political leaders. Being of the first television generation, I was able to witness and learn about many, many historic events while growing up — not all of them celebratory, of course, but all of them important. And yes, some of them required staying up late at night or getting up early in the morning before school to see.
My attention was drawn to people on the public stage, people of stature and importance. I found heroes in the “reality” of TV news coverage, especially female heroes: Golda Meir, the Foreign Minister of Israel, in her address to the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1957. This plain little lady, a grandmother in sensible shoes, spoke with such passion and intelligence, and resolve. I was captivated even at the age of ten. She later became the Prime Minister of Israel (1969 -74) and a life-long hero of mine whom I watched and followed eagerly, and eventually even wrote a non-fiction YA biography about her.
In the 1970s during the Watergate Hearings, it was Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) from Houston (1973-79). Her controlled, erudite address on the Constitution in 1974 made me proud to be a Texan, even though I wasn’t living in Texas at the time. Still later, there was Hillary Clinton. First Lady of the United States (1993-2001), U.S. Senator (2002-2009), and U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013). Love her or hate her, she still challenged conventional roles with courage and conviction and managed to become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. (Liz Cheney appears to be a woman of similar courage and conviction, and controversy, on a similar trajectory in national politics.)
Of course there have been towering male figures whom I admired as I witnessed their history-making moments, people like Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), and Nelson Mandela, who became the President of South Africa after serving 27 years in prison (1994), but men seem to have historic “public moments” much more often than women do. I think my early awareness of that really began with Elizabeth. She was such an unassuming young woman in the beginning, one who was never supposed to become a head of state, but who found herself thrust into a position of leadership and power while surrounded by a cadre of old men who doubted her ability to rise to the occasion. Yet, she bore it all — the doubts, the drudgery, the family duties, the demands of a changing world, and the unrelenting responsibility of her role—with dignity, grace and humility for 70 years. Regardless of our station in life, there are lessons to be learned there for all of us.
Let us hope that Charles III has learned his lessons well. He has certainly had long enough to prepare for this moment, but he is assuming the throne amid already cautious assessments of his potential during very troubling times and serious challenges for both his country and the world. Moreover, in Liz Truss, he has an inexperienced Prime Minister who has only been in office for a few days. Perhaps both being new in their roles will more readily cement their relationship and help the Crown to rise to the occasion.
God save the King.